For a while now, the term ‘exam factory’ has increasingly been used to describe the condition of our schools. As the government pursues its one-size-fits-all approach to learning, what does the future of our education service look like?
Probably not like a service at all. More like an industry, something akin to a factory farm. Ponder for a moment on the irony of that – a society that rebels against the factory farming of animals sees its government implementing the same strategy with its children. The recent education White Paper was the final declaration of intent, and it’s been followed up with a dogmatic statement from the Prime Minister that he intends to finish the job of compulsory academy conversion.
Having spent a year or few in senior management, I understand the frustration of creaky systems and dated curricula that sometimes appear to owe more to the Victorian era than the twenty-first century. But at the heart of it all are the concepts of service, building community and nurturing connections with the amazing world that God created and with the societies that our children will grow up to inhabit. Service nurtures people; industry manufactures products.
To add to the furore that compulsory academisation has provoked, the government announced this week that church schools have negotiated memoranda of understanding whereby the final say in conversion (to academy status, not faith) will rest with the diocese. This brought immediate cries of protest from non-church schools that don’t want to convert (saying it’s an unfair bias) and from people asking why ‘every school an academy’ isn’t actually going to apply to every school. All may not be as it seems, however, as in issuing the memoranda, the government also pointed out that they are subject to change to take account of the policy contained in the White Paper. So maybe the understandings aren’t worth anything at all – just a means of appeasement whilst continuing with the second dissolution of the monasteries.
Then there’s the case of rural primaries (probably buying off a back-bench revolt with additional funding) and schools who don’t want to join a MAT (they won’t have to, apparently). There’s the unproven argument that academies raise standards. And the reprimand from the National Audit Office for failing to properly account for academy spending, and a warning from the Schools Commissioner that academisation will become an opportunity for money to wash into lawyers’ pockets .
So as the wriggling begins to pacify the back benches, church schools, opponents to privilege for church schools, rural schools and any other group that has a legitimate point to make, what needs to be kept in plain view? First and foremost, the fact that you can’t apply the industrial processes of a free market economy to education, or not in totality, at least. One size doesn’t fit all because education nurtures people, it doesn’t produce widgets.
There’s an argument to be made for modernisation and value for money, and there’s certainly a debate to be held about what constitutes a ‘good’ education and to what extent party political views and ministers’ pet ideas should impact on that. But at the heart of every debate should remain the fact that schools are communities which, in turn, serve the families and communities that they represent. In that way, every school is as unique as the people within it. That’s why parent governors (and governors in general rather than Boards of Management) are so vital.
Perhaps the words that God gave to the prophet Jeremiah should guide our thinking about how best to nurture our children and help them to grow into loving, caring and mature adults: ‘”For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future”’ (Jeremiah 29:11). Just how we give our children hope and a future should be the guiding principle of our education service.